Making Organic Lawn Care Work
North Carolina firm uses "turf science"
Pleasant Green Grass
Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and surrounding communitiesServices:
Organic lawn care and turf maintenance, seeding and sodding, hardscapes, design/build, and water featuresEmployees:
4 full time Website: www.pleasantgreengrass.com
An all-organic lawn service program is no easy sell, admits Scott Walker, co-owner of Pleasant Green Grass in North Carolina.
"Imagine telling a potential client that it may take two to three years before they see the positive effects on their organic lawn. And, that it could possibly look worse before it gets better," he says wryly.
"We get some of those 'don't-let-the-door-hit-you' kind of stares, but most of our clients are pretty knowledgeable professional types who want to be good stewards of the environment. They understand that lawns can become addicted to chemicals, develop tolerance levels that require more and more chemicals be administered to achieve the same results, and that the grass also undergoes withdrawal symptoms when transitioning away from chemicals."
Commercial and government decision-makers are often the hardest to persuade, he says, because they've done certain things the same way for years and don't want to change. When they learn that his services are afforable they can be persuaded to give it a try.
The Pleasant Green Grass team (l. to r.): Cesar Quintanilla, owner Scott Walker, Chad Harrison, and Ian McKee.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PLEASANT GREEN.
Walker is a partner with The Sustainable Ventures Fund of Anka Funds (www.ankafunds.com), a local investment firm that invests nationally and has a strong position in green/sustainable industries. They co-own Pleasant Green Grass, Inc., which operates in the commercially rich Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, N.C., triangle. The investment firm offers Walker the additional capital, business experience, growth strategies and a growing client list to help him increase market share and introduce what he describes as "science-based" lawn maintenance services.
The addition of organic nutrients and beneficial nematodes to lawns makes for healthier, more pest-resistant lawns, claims Pleasant Green Grass owner Scott Walker.
Meeting of the minds
"I met Jonathan Philips, one of the investors, doing work for his project, www.mainstreamgreenhome.com, a high-profile home that was the first LEED Platinum Home in the Southeast," says Walker. "Their investment company believes in green technologies, and they saw what we were doing and became interested.
"We're the largest and longest-running 100 percent organic lawn care company in the region, possibly the entire state," claims Walker. "We serve about 450 clients, including residential, governmental and commercial accounts. Just this year we decided to add mowing and accept credit cards on our website for the convenience of our clients."
Expanding palette of services
Six years ago, Walker says he was doing only lawn fertilization, and now his small, well-trained staff handles a variety of related services including landscape/design work, mosquito treatments, delivery of organic Christmas trees, edible landscaping, and planting and pruning trees, all with the organic approach.
"Our goal is to be a one-stop-shop for all organic lawn care needs and give people honest information ... and the process for transitioning to an organic lawn," says Walker.
He says the first step in his firm's process is to test clients' soils and have them evaluated by North Carolina State University.
"They (NCS) have a wonderful horticulture program and we can rely on their findings. We look for certain key factors like a pH level between 6.5 to 7.0 to understand if we need to add lime, and we consider things such as the Chelation cation exchange capacity (CEC)," says Walker, adding that CEC is key to micronutrient management. Chelation increases the solubility and plant uptake of many metal micronutrients in the soil.
Healthy soil, healthy lawns
"There are many measurements to consider when putting together a proper plan of action, but getting the soil properly conditioned, by adding nutrients and beneficial microbes is essential to the success of the organic lawn," he adds. Walker is a proponent of corn gluten meal (CGN) as a preemergent herbicide. "Proteins in CGM inhibit root formation on newly germinated seeds, killing the plant, so the application must be timed so that the CGM is present and effective as seeds are germinating. We like it in spring and fall. A side benefit is that as it deteriorates, it releases nitrogen."
After doing what they can with the soil, Walker will aerate the lawn and topdress an even layer of compost, about a quarter-inch deep. "This needs to be done in early spring; never in summer, the stress on the grass is too much," he says.
The best and most effective way to keep weeds out of fine turfgrass is to keep it healthy, thick and mowed at a higher height. Pleasant Green does this by concentrating on building the health of the soil.
Bundling makes sense
Maintenance options come next. Their services are sometimes bundled to offer the customer a more comprehensive package. "Our programs are scientifically designed to work in harmony with each other and bundling can bring significant discounts to customers over a la carte pricing. Our base package includes pruning, trimming, compost tea (spraying bushes and trees), debris cleanup and supplemental hand-weeding."
Pleasant Green Grass also offers what it terms its Warm Season Program, which is broken down into two different packages: one each for the prevalent types of warm-season grasses grown in North Carolina. "We have our Bermudagrass Program that includes preemergent application in February/March; organic fertilizer and bio-stimulant in April/May; aeration, plus organic fertilizer and bio-stimulant in June; preemergent weed control, plus high potassium fertilizer in August." The Zoysiagrass Program involves a preemergent application in February/March; organic fertilizer and bio-stimulant in April/May; aeration, plus organic fertilizer and bio-stimulant in June; preemergent weed control, plus high potassium fertilizer in August.
The firm's top offering is its Platinum Program, a comprehensive program tailored for each client individually, but normally includes a Gluten Green application in early spring (Gluten Green is an organic preemergent weed control and fertilizer that helps stop weeds while promoting a slow feed); three compost tea sprays (fermented organic, botanical, soil bacteria, fungi and proprietary ingredients), releasing nutrients and helping to increase fertility and resistance to diseases; aeration and overseeding in early fall, which helps replenish stressed grass from the onslaught of summer heat; one regular organic fertilizer in the late fall, which encourages root growth and offers a slow feed over the winter months.
"Adjustments to all programs are made regularly to ensure that the turf is getting the necessary nutrients," says Walker.
Two smaller packages, named Silver and Gold, offer more economical programs. Silver provides two compost tea applications, two organic fertilizer applications and aeration. Gold customers enjoy two compost tea applications (spring and summer), two Gluten Green applications (spring and late summer), aeration and fertilization in late fall.
Making the sick well again
"Over time, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides build up and degrade the soil, so our initial efforts are to rid the soil of toxicity," Walker says. "When you see a lawn that looks like a golf course, you've got to understand that there is a terrible price to pay environmentally," he adds. "We find ourselves having to re-sod more and more, and when we do, we use warm-season grasses such as bermuda and zoysia because of their drought tolerance here in the South."
Walker instructs his crews to mow at about a 3- to 3.5-inch height in summer months and insists that his maintenance crews alternate the direction each time they mow.
"Cutting too short causes the grass plant to use carbohydrates from the root reserves to initiate new growth, directly affecting the ability of the turf to obtain water and nutrients," he says. "The more we know and understand, the better it is for our health, our lawns and our environment. That's why we call it turf science."
Adds Walker, "The best and safest way to keep weeds out of a lawn is to keep the turf thick and healthy. Overseeding is designed to do just that, and the process replaces dead grass and thickens up areas that have thinned out." The best time to overseed cool-weather grasses, such as fescue and bluegrass, is fall, while warm-weather grasses can be overseeded in spring when the soil reaches about 60 degrees, he explains.
"Clean water is going to be the next big issue. It's up to us to develop strategies that will improve the environment and satisfy the public's demands to have a beautiful lawn and, at the same time, not pollute our waters," he says.
"It's a real challenge, but we think we've got a pretty good handle on the science, now we just have to make the sale."
Jackie Ingles is a writer, editor and freelance partner with her husband, Mike. She lives and works in Columbus, Ohio, and can be contacted at email@example.com.